Continuing on with last week’s discussion, I want today to give praise to the power of words that align themselves in tales of fiction.
I’ve always been an avid reader but I think my love of story ignited when I was twelve. My mom gifted me with Anne of Green Gables and I was smitten. I still remember its apple green wrapper showcasing Anne perched on a fence with high neck collar, sun hat and black sturdy boots. It was my first hard cover. I knew by the way my mother gave it to me, the reverence she placed on it, that it was more than just her favorite book. It was, in some way, my literary menarche. I stopped reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon and forged on to new adventures. I went from Romance to Westerns, Sci Fi to Suspense. By my mid-twenties I had moved on to the classics and devoured Dante and Homer, Dostoyevsky and Milton. I read Toni Morrison and Atwood, Ondaatje and Lessing. Forty years later I am truly an eclectic reader with, on average, three different genres on hand for various needs: a classic for settling me down before a hectic day; a mystery, fantasy or romance for relaxing at the end of one; and a non-fiction text for moments in between. I not only love them all but am continually amazed by what they give me. Regardless of the genre and their ranking between high and low brow, books, especially the fictitious ones, not only comfort me but open doors to new perspectives.
I remember years ago, during a rather difficult time when I needed lots of support, a two-bit cowboy romance helped me get past the depression I felt for being so dependent. In the story the hero suggests to the “maiden in distress” to think of him like the stake used to hold up a tree damaged by a winter storm: the stake, he says, is only needed until the tree establishes its roots again. I held on to that metaphor and was able to go forth with hope and belief that I, too, would grow strong again.
Sometimes it is just a sentence or a word that opens my eyes to a new way of looking at an issue. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote in The Great Gatsby: He paid a high price for living too long with a single dream helped me begin the grieving process after leaving a certain position. And, upon reading the word “legitimize” in some suspense novel, I was immediately granted an answer to a problem that had been holding me back.
I know I am not alone in this. Last week I wrote of a chapter in Primo Levi’s book: Survival in Auschwitz. I read and reread his words, sinking into their power as he tried to remember Dante’s retelling of Ulysses’ single-mindedness and ultimate shipwreck. I felt a strong affinity to Levi’s emotions of needing to get the story out, to be understood… to share the magnitude of how we are so tied to history and the words of those that came before us. I felt myself urging Levi on, wanting his desire to be fulfilled: not only that his friend, Jean, would understand Dante but that he see what Levi, himself, was only just beginning to sense—a possible meaning, a parallel cause that linked Ulysses’ fateful voyage to their own. It was as if at that moment, fiction opened a door so that Levi could somehow name his experience, illuminate it— if only for a moment—and somehow ease the pain of his powerlessness.
And that is why I love fiction. Beside its idyllic companionship and entertainment value, fiction serves me in learning more about myself. It doesn’t spew facts and research; dole out expert analysis or professional opinion but opens, instead, a portal to possibility. Fiction breaks down walls and rejuvenates the idea of Jung’s collective unconscious. One has only to read Homer to know that our humanness is age-old and founded on a continuum: we may have evolved in some ways but we still do greed, anger, grief and love in much the same way as our ancient ancestors. In many ways, fiction is what ties us together, what proves our interdependence.
So, I ask you, what does fiction do for you?